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Heroes of the Louisiana Oral Tradition

The Louisiana oral tradition, particularly the animals’ tales featuring Bouki and Lapin, reflect cultural and societal issues as well as influences from French and African literary traditions. This paper will explore the way the oral tradition maintained and developed these characters and reflect the cultural concerns on the Cajun and Creole populations working through social barriers and create their own identity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.

In the Louisiana oral tradition, there is no doubt that Bouki and Lapin are important characters. The number of stories and their variants that contain them — once friends, once rivals but always inseparable — is very grand indeed. The tradition of animal tales is ancient and not exclusive to Louisiana. The real question is to understand the importance animals occupy in the Cajun and Creole oral traditions and how the animals’ identities fit into such cultures.

Since the work of the Grimm brothers, we have known that animals have been present in tales since the beginning of time.1 Studying the links, similarities and differences of the tales observed throughout the world, researchers conclude that the origins of these tales are most likely Indo-European. However, the majority of the tales accumulated in Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries shows that their success extends beyond the Indo-European world. This is why instead of looking at geographic origin of the tales, scholars were more interested in considering how to classify them. Antti Aarne (1910) and Stith Thompson (1961), propose an organization by types. Stith identifies 500 different types of tales. This number continued to grow, and, today, the categorization reaches 2,340, which are grouped into in four categories: animal tales, fairy tales, mischievous tales, and formula tales. In the work of Ancelet in Cajun and Creole Folktales, the tales of Bouki and Lapin become particularly significant especially in the tale: Lapin, chat et les Chestnuts (Rabbit, Cat, and the Chestnuts) for which he makes references to another list developed by Luc Lacourcière and Margaret Low. These characters have also been observed in tales from other countries. For example, the character Bouki, shown as a hyena in West Africa, can be found in the Antilles, which was an active location in the slave trade.

Since it is important to place the Louisiana oral tradition into a broader context, we will leave on the side the origins of the name Bouki (donkey), and why popular characters from the Carabians such as Zamba, Malice and Colibri were not associated in the Cajun and Creole tradition? However, ours (bear), hibou (owl), renard (fox), lion (lion), and âne (donkey) are present. One could think that the association of Lapin and Bouki are just pure luck.

I use the word association because, in fact, the choice of traits incarnation, that is to say the stigma associated to the animal, is only weakly motivated. The assimilation happens because of the constant attribution of a character to a persona. For example, if an animal seems to always have the same role, in the end, it seems that the role will forever be linked to that particular character. In the animal tales, the distribution of the roles is in relation to the collective representation of the associated characters of the animals and that representation actually varies from one society to another. In the La Fontaine tales, the rabbit and the hare are always losers, lazy, full of themselves; but in the Louisiana tales, Lapin always finishes victorious. In the tale Lapin and ver de terre (The Rabbit and the Earthworm), Lapin pretends to help elephant to carry a tree while he is just sitting on the branches, and the vain side of the character is revealed in Lapin and the Whale when Lapin bets with Bouki that he is stronger than an elephant and a whale. The variation between societies is even clearer when examining these animals in the Arab culture: the weasel is a protective animal, versus his role in La Fontaine, where he is only driven by his stomach. In the Weasel in the Attic, we notice the weasel with an extreme appetite.

Using animals to showcase a certain type of character is the main function of these kinds of tales. Character traits function based upon their individual representation. The animal is condemned to repeat the same errors in every situation, in the same way as in commedia dell’arte, where the actors come back and react following their assigned role. This is what makes these tales a success. Because of this basic structure, one can create a wide variety of stories with variants from the time the character is conceptualized. Whatever the society we are in, the idea we have of the animal will be identical. However, one must be careful with the fables of La Fontaine, as his characters are not generic. Instead, through La Fontaine, the characters are deep and individualized; as a result, they become heroes of their stories. In many of these stories, fights, disagreements and adventures are formed from the concepts of society, but the characters serve as personifications of societal concerns. As a result, this is why none of the animals have an excessively dominant character. The character is created from several components: a debate based on values and a competition between characters.

If all societies have these projections, it is because human’s representation in these animals is practical from the time we eliminate the ethical codes. Animals can fight, kill each other, and eat each other: the dominant trait is Pitti Bonhomme Godron (Little Man Godron), where in the long version from Fortier, animals ate each other, having the consequence from their master to be deprived of water. Using metaphors from human’s behavior allow for better visualization of the social rapport that caricatured them. Whereas human realism is not comic, its animal transposition provides total freedom for to pass any morals in an acceptable manner which brings the second functions of animal tales: one can describe in the most graphic manners, and ridicule the other in a totally abject manner because, since it is in the animal world, it is perfectly acceptable and natural. The animal substitute gives the possibility to protect from one’s barbaric phantasms.

The tales show definite structure. Even if most of the stories only place two or three actors within the tales, a social organization is recognizable in each of them. This analysis allows for further consideration of Bouki and Lapin. While they are important characters in the Louisiana oral tradition, other characters, such as the macaques, the owl, the lion, the fox, the donkey, the bear create the world around them. The animals are people who are part of a society where contestation is prohibited or frowned upon, and the tale can be a tool of satire which permits this kind of behavior.

The complexity of the social rapport between the animals is real and significant given that that there is no identifiable winner within the stories. If one character wins in one tale, the same character might be taken advantage of or abused in another tale by another character. Lapin, even if he wins most of the time because of his wit, finds himself in a very delicate situation in some tales; in fact, he even dies in Compère Lapin et M. Dindon (Friend Rabbit and Mr. Turkey). If Ysengrin is fooled by Renard (the fox in the Roman de Renard), the wolf eats the goat (Chèvre de M. Seguin [The Goat of Mr. Seguin]), but Biquet in the story Les 7 Biquets (The Seven Goats) save all of his brothers by demanding the password from the monster. The relationships between the heroes are complex, and it is during the story and the dialogue contained therein that these relations and subsequently the characters develop. This creates what one could call “cycles” (set of stories around one hero), which establish the portraits of the hero and as the purpose to gain some time when the tale uses the same hero since he doesn’t have to be introduced; Lapin will always be smart and trick someone else.

The portraits help to quickly introduce the animals and, of course, the animals’ speech. It is through dialogue that analogy works within these tales. It is dialogue that allows another important aspect of these tales to become present — the idea of metaphor could not be accessible without that component. Each of the characters speaks in their own language; however all of the animals are able to understand each other. In consideration of the different languages, readers of these stories may find themselves in a familiar place — the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which humans spoke one common language, clearly represented in the tales Piti Bonhomme Godron. While it might seem that the animals are able to manage the complexities of multiple languages, in actuality, their universe is far from ideal. It seems that this twist is only to counter balance the incredible story line and to show that this world is a coherent one, a society where rabbits can marry lions, where there is no social barrier, no racial barrier, unlike what humans in Louisiana were experiencing. This animal society, shown in these tales, translates to a recognizable human society as the animals are clothed and they mimic human social traits, especially love and marriage, prison and rules. Yet, the story also has issues of morality such as honor, courage, pride, fidelity, love, vanity, laziness, theft, lies. These themes are universal and can be found in any traditions. Even more interesting, the use of animals allows ethnic barriers to become transparent.

The tale often places a bully against the weak, the dumb against the intelligent, and the manipulator against the manipulated. In sum, the relationships between characters are hierarchical, which is why themes rooted in good versus evil are not central as when there are no innocent victims. The tales are not fables since there is no personification of character traits. The morality is almost nonexistent where it so emphasized that it looks fake or it is a simple pretext for the story. Sometimes, the tale is simply summarized by some proverbs added after each other: “Ein ti zozo dans la main vaut mié qué plein ti zozos quapé voltigé dans le bois” (“A bird in your hand is worth more than a bunch in the woods” in Mariaze compare lapin. (Fortier, 50)

The tales from the beginning try to set forth an adventure. Often, it is an agitation, a perturbation of daily life, but in the end, the order is reestablished. The hero disturbs the order for money or just for pleasure, sometimes for sex (Tiens bon, Bouki [Keep Up, Bouki]), but many times for gluttony (Compère lapin et Compère ours [Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Bear], Compère Bouki [Mr. Bouki], Compère lapin et les oeufs d’oiseaux [Mr. Rabbit and the Bird’s Eggs], En haut la terre ou en bas la terre [Is the Earth on Top or At Bottom?], Couri baptizer [Hurry, Get Baptized]). These episodes do not have moral lessons; instead they serve as a pretext to confront characters and to amuse each other by playing tricks on one another. Sometimes, the animals can be accomplices (Néléphant avec baleine [The Elephant and the Whale]), but this is simply a narrative technique. In other words, the hero needs to initiate his actions within the store but can only do so if he talks to someone who is not his equal. This informs the comic effect within these stories — the obvious superiority of one animal over the other will solve all the problems. Laughter is also a consequence from the situations in these stories as often the animals find they have been tricked. If the tale does not have a lesson, it is sometimes built to explain in a very amusing way, natural phenomena without explanations (Compère Lapin et Madame Carencro [Mr. Rabbit and Ms. Carencro], Le chien et le Lapin [The Dog and the Rabbit]). In these instances, the tales have the same function as myths but in a less universal proportion.

The oral tradition in the previously presented tales often works with the help of dialogue and action from the storyteller. The dialogue, as previously discussed, is important to the character of the hero; however, we will find some very long description and narration as well (Mariaz compair Lapin). Another related form is the fabliau which is very close to the animal tale by its themes and only different because of its verse form. The fabliau and the tale are, without much doubt, derived from the ancient poems or “romans” from the Middle Ages (Roman de Renard), themselves derived from the antique fables of Esope (and in the Middle Age, from the Ysopets of Marie de France for example).

The observation in Louisiana tales as Froumi et Grasshopper (The Ant and the Lazy Cricket) is directly influenced by the La Fontaine fables (La Cigale et la Fourmi). However, today, it is still hard to know the origin of fables, while many have tried anyway to offer some hypotheses. La Fontaine was not the first one to tell fables, he collected them in the tradition that surrounded him. When he published his fables in 1668, the immigrants, those who became the Louisianans-Acadians, had already left France. In fact, it is highly probable that they already brought these stories with them. This offers an explanation for the variants found in the original version of La Fontaine. The filiation is, without much doubt, to be found in the popular oral tradition. The association between the animals from La Fontaine is incontestable, but this association is not limited to the animals from La Fontaine, as we find animals from Africa which Louisiana tales combine. The combinations are partial because the Louisiana storytellers have adapted them to a regional context. As previously discussed, the characters in the tales are individualized, but the fables are not. The Grasshopper will play the accordion while Fourmi will work which goes directly with the idea that ants are hardworking insects. The contextualization is an important concept in the cultural appropriation of a tale. Even if we find characters from other cultures, the current version will adapt them.

As far as the tandem Lapin-Bouki in Louisiana, it is maybe due to the fact that Lapin is someone who likes to have fun, eat and do absurd acts, just for pleasure. He loves to make fun of Bouki, who symbolizes all things that are stupid, slow, or retarded. The Cadians are known to like “faire des niches” (playing jokes) just for pleasure, and they do their tricks to their friends.2 Bouki and Lapin are also friends. From there to conclude that Cajuns consider that their neighbor is an idiot is too direct. It is Lapin’s behavior and savoir-faire, his wit and his tricks, that attract us and correspond to the spirit of the Cajun-Creole. Bouki is always the dumb one trying to follow Lapin and who, at the end, is always tricked. He could very well succeed but as Lapin states: “vous oua mo plis smart qué vous (you are not smarter than me)!” (Neuman, 20). In the Nineteenth century, the complexities of social status gave rise to the tales versus laments. This idea brought forward the characters Bouki and Lapin: Lapin for being so intelligent who opposes to anyone who doesn’t belong to their story. Lapin is the one who adapts to anything and no matter what will get out of any situation. It is maybe what Cajuns and Creoles had to do to survive when they arrived in Louisiana. And if Lapin tempts the devil, it is not because he is not only trying to defend himself, but because he is a fighter and that just like the Cajuns and the Creoles do not like to make a big deal of everything, the reasons are not always the most serious.

The characters of Bouki and Lapin are not exclusive to Louisiana. If we compare Lapin to Bugs Bunny, the resemblance is clear. In the modern cartoon, however, the animal tale disappears, jokes are added, and the whole genre now includes images in the form of cartoons. This idea is also evident in the characters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Picsou—here, there are tales, but the characters in the modern versions harken back to those in the animal tales described in this paper.

In conclusion, animal tales are present in many societies. There is a strong presence of French and African influences in Louisiana literary tradition. The similarities of the stories and the use of the name of Bouki confirm these connections. As time move forward, the influence of French and African traditions became a part of these stories until they became uniquely Louisiana animal tales. One facet of the Louisiana animal tales that is particularly interesting is the focus of stories involving Bouki and Lapin. The storyteller in these stories also plays an important role. In fact, one could argue that the storyteller could very well tell a sequence in which Lapin gets tricked by Bouki, as a form of revenge and justice for all the trouble Lapin placed Bouki in the past. The people of Louisiana found these characters appealing because they spoke to them, and the tellers transformed them to respond to the need of the population, of what they wanted to hear, as many of them were illiterate. Compared to Renard, where he is often an ill-intended, evil creature), Lapin is just the funny guy who wants to have fun without really hurting anyone. These characters are significant because it is through them that cultural identity can be expressed. It is the selection and the recurrence of the characters that indicates a crystallization of cultural components. Finally, because the concept of contextualization is important, Bouki and Lapin, make people laugh, which reflects their Louisiana background and contributes to dimension of the Cajun-creole spirit and humor.

  1. Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen), 1812. ↩︎

  2. We will not differentiate between the tales told in Cajun French and Creole due mainly of the evident continuum between the two languages; at the cultural level, the differences are so minimal that we will not spend time to elaborate on the specifics; however, we are aware of the nuances between the two cultures and languages ↩︎


Allain Mathé and Barry Ancelet. Littérature française de Louisiane. Bedford, NH : National Materials Development Center for French, 1981. Ancelet, Barry Jean. Cajun and creole folktales. New-York : Garland, 1994. Ancelet, Barry, et al. Cajun Country. Jackson and London : University Press of Mississipi, 1991. Fortier, Alcée. Louisiana folk-tales in french dialect and English translation. Memoirs of the American society, vol 2. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1895. La Fontaine, Jean. Fables choisies, vol.2. Paris : Classiques Larousses,1934. Lindahl, Carl, et al. Swapping stories. Jackson : University Press of Mississipi, 1997. Neumann, Ingrid. Textes anciens en créole louisianais. Hamburg : Buske, 1987. Payen, Jean Charles. Littérature française : le Moyen âge. Paris : Arthaud, 1990.

About the Author: 

Luc Guglielmi is an Associate Professor of French in the Department of Foreign Languages at Kennesaw State University, coordinates the French program, as well as directs summer study abroad programs in France and Belgium for the University System of Georgia.

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